The idea of your being what you eat is neither new nor unique when it comes to nutrition. I’m not going to get into a froth about organic farming. Nor am I going to get all romantic about turning urban landscapes into farmland, and striving for self-sufficiency, and more awareness of the origins of our food. I’m more interested in how our relationship with food may define cultural and historical aspects of our lives. At some stage, it may be interesting to try to see where social connections can be made based on foods we know, like, have tasted, or grown–that’s for another time, perhaps. I could make this little essay a string of words that listed the many things that I like to eat, and it would be a wide geographical and historical journey–that too, may be something to explore some other time. But, I’m intrigued by something a little more limited, and look at an affinity to Jamaican food, and how it can help to define many a person.
I was just put on that train of thought by my third grade daughter talking about our recent trip to Jamaica. Someone asked her at swimming practice yesterday if she had enjoyed her trip. Much to my surprise, she showed her enjoyment by going straight into a description of what she’d eaten. No surprise, there. Shockingly, she talked about how she’d loved eating a cooked green vegetable–not reloving some dessert which she had eaten. (Many people with young children are reaching for the smelling salts at this point.) She talked about callaloo, which she’d eaten several times for breakfast during the previous week, usually with cooked salt fish. What was funny was how a Bahamian cousin of hers–also a very good swimmer–had drooled about callaloo after he discovered it for the first time three years ago. He could not get enough of it. Is there something in those greens about which parents need to know? Somehow, I could not envisage this excitement brimming over in our Maryland suburban setting simply because it’s not readily available. This vegetable abounds in Jamaica and is the core of many a meal. Neither child knew that beforehand, but they both fitted it into their Jamaican experiences. Fried dumplings, jerk chicken, patties would all work the same way.
Food was very much a constant during last week’s visit to Kingston. With not a breath of hesitation, we dived into plates of Jamaican food, like snails fall into a mug of beer. Some was new to our family group, some was familiar staple. Mangoes, papaya, water melon, oranges, and ripe bananas, all look and smell wonderful first thing in the morning, and are familiar to many. They define for me a routine start to the day, even though they have not been part of my regular day for decades. I remember the excitement I felt when I had the chance to recall that while living in west Africa, where many of the same fruits abound.
But we got to see and sample some of the less well-known fruit, too. What about naseberry (sapodilla)? What about pomegranates? A list of things remembered came flooding back: star apple, custard apple (sweet sop), guineps. For me, they brought memories of childhood times and places. For my daughters, they brought back memories of previous trips. For all of us, things missed but now within our grasp. However we felt, we could exercise our like-dislike options, based on ripeness, sweetness, texture, juiciness or messiness.
Cooked food can be manipulated by the cook to be more or less to a person’s taste. The tempting sights and smell of a food being prepared still leaves the taste test to be overcome. Every cuisine has its weirdness. Jamaica has one that never seems to fail. If you like scrambled eggs, how do you convince yourself that the cooked item that is in your plate and looks like scrambled eggs is indeed a fruit that is eaten as a savoury? Meet ackee, which bears no resemblance to eggs except in colour? A fruit with the reputation of only being edible in special circumstances, or would be poisonous. Doesn’t sound worth the effort? Pass me your share!
If you’ve never sampled a certain food, it can be hard to understand its taste, smell, texture, and how your body reacts to it. Someone familiar with the food may try to describe it, but sometimes you cannot come near to capturing what it’s all about, except by trying it yourself. Then, if you like it, you become like many a convert, the true apostle. My older daughter knows she cannot tolerate certain foods–red bell peppers, for instance. How could I understand her love of manish water? Once she discovered that it was truly made from a ram goat’s head, plus many of the innards, she thrilled at wickedly letting her friends in on this fact…after they had sampled it. I know that for her, drinking it puts her in many places and situations that are nothing else but Jamaican. No possible confusions with her other roots.
What happens to the rest of the goat? Curried goat. Three days running may seem excessive. Judging by the empty plates each time it appeared or was requested, I figure that three days is not the limit.
My favourite ice cream flavour is grape nut. Never had it? Doesn’t surprise me, if you’ve never been to Jamaica. But, I know it’s very popular in some parts of north America, though I’ve never seen it listed in any Haagen-Dazs, Baskin-Robbins, or Ben and Jerry’s. It’s everywhere in Jamaica, though. Along with other favourites such as sour sop, rum and raisin,
How many types of mango do you know? How many do you have in your yard? What do you look forward to picking from your trees? What do you plan to do with your harvest? Share? Consume yourself? Try new recipes? Ever eaten mango crumble? Let me tell you how good that is.
Where you live can be more of a home because of what is growing around you. I loved my first owned house in London very much for what I did to transform its narrow garden into a space that produced fruit and vegetables for us to eat.
I always found it odd that homes in the US were considered in ‘good locations’, when they had just lawns, flowers and shrubs roundabout them.
When you live somewhere, like Jamaica, that allows almost anything to grow, your location would be better if it had fruit trees and vegetables, as well as flowers and shrubs. New homes get their character quickly as owners plant trees: lime, mango, or whatever–an eye to the future produce.
My father did the same, but on a larger scale, when he went back to Jamaica and bought a new house. Years later, what was once almost bare is full to overflowing.
When I went to visit my father over the weekend ‘in the country’; my mission was also to check on what was growing in his yard. He lives in a mountainous area, with a renowned cool climate. However, both my daughters have had trees planted there for them–mango for one, two coconuts for another. None of these trees grows well in that area, but they are trying their best. But, I also had to check on corn, sugar cane, peas, yam, onions, sweet potatoes, and cho-cho–always growing wild on the vines. At last, the lychee tree had fruit in abundance: I sampled one, and though it was sour, I could foresee them ripened in weeks to come. I couldn’t leave without some produce being given to me to take back to Kingston.
I recalled our time in Barbados, where we had a house with guava trees in the yard. We shared eating the fruit with green monkeys; made jam with them; gave away bagfuls for others to eat or make ‘cheese’; made guava duff–Barbados was forever changed :-). Some doctor friends always gave me bags of mangoes from their yard, when they were in season; I gave them guavas. I shared their mangoes with my neighbours and friends.
I remember visiting Jamaica a few years ago and spending an afternoon climbing trees and hooking fruit with sticks so that a friend’s friend would not lose her ripening fruit. We did not have time for food, wine and idle chit-chat while looking over the hills and waiting for the setting sun: there was ‘work’ to be done. I can’t remember how many boxes we filled, but we were pretty sore and hungry when we were done. The usual socializing came afterwards.
Jamaica, a country that is plagued with praedial larceny also finds itself with people willing to ‘capture’ unoccupied land to till and plant rather than leave to attract rubbish and weeds. Adjacent to my father’s house is a vacant lot, and someone we know has cleared it and populated it with plants. It yielded enough produce to depend less on buying. It offered cash crops to supplement income. It provided distraction and activity for children. The parcel has now being ‘shared’ and now two ‘farmers’ who do not own it are working it.
It’s funny to see this basic idea and its collaborative elements now coming into play by introducing similar ‘urban farming‘ in some areas in the US. Trying to use a connection to food to redefine people and spaces. I’m not sure they will go the whole hog, so to speak, and also adopt another Jamaican ‘land grab’ tradition of putting animals to graze on vacant land.
Our travels over Easter left us tired and in need of cheer once we had come back home. My family ate home cooking and crashed. The next day, coming home late, after being back to school and work, they needed more cheer. The solution was obvious to my little daughter. She went to the box of Jamaican patties, which her mother had bought at the airport, and the baking tray was soon full of patties. No one had any better ideas. Why was I not surprised?